That’s exactly the kind of crisis Deondr’e Austin faced five years ago. He says as far as finding a legal job, it was hard. "As far as find anything else that was bad in the world, the network can find a lot of bad things."
That’s the beauty and the beast, if you will, of networks. If your network is diverse with upwardly mobile people, people who have resources and can help you out, you’re probably going to do OK.
But if your network is largely homogenous, filled with people struggling just like you, you’re in trouble.
As Deondr’e tells it, his mom had a hard time providing for herself, Deondr’e and his two brothers. So when he was 17 years old, he struck out on his own and relied on his network to help him find a place to live. But the only people in his network were homeless teens like him and drug dealers, so those are the folks who stepped in to help.
He wound up living in a "foreclosure crib" for a long stretch of time with "no lights, no electricity." I ask him if he had to do anything illegal to make money? He laughs and says "Yeah, I was making the money, but I wasn’t really doing the right things to get it."
Deondr’e says he sold drugs, had people steal things for him. But he also says he tried to get a job. He says he called tons of places – from fast-food joints to big-box stores – but no one would hire him. He finally hooked up with Ozone House, a non-profit in Ypsilanti for at-risk youth and through Ozone House he heard about Food Gatherers, a food bank that helps feed people who are homeless. He completed a training program at Food Gatherers, and when a job opened up, he applied and got it.
Today, Deondr'e is the warehouse facility assistant at Food Gatherers. He deals with the pantry most of the time, making sure it's well stocked with enough food to feed the homeless population in Washtenaw County. He used to be one of those people.
The irony isn't lost on him.
But he knows if he finds himself in trouble now, without a place to sleep or something to eat, he’s got people in his network that can help him out.
"I think I got a little more people than I had … way more than I had, actually ... because I had none. But I think I got at least two or three or people I can call," says Deondr'e.
So what happens to people who do wind up in prison? From what I’ve been told, it’s lonely and isolating. You’re totally separated from the life and world you knew before you went in.
How do you create connections in a place like that?
Well, for some prisoners, connection starts with college students from the University of Michigan. Specifically, students with U of M's Prison Creative Arts Project, or PCAP. It's been around for 25 years. Professors and students from U of M travel to prisons all over southeast Michigan, leading inmates in theater, writing, and painting workshops. The classes last a whole semester, and at the end the inmates put on a show of some kind for their fellow prisoners.
Mary was one of the first prisoners ever to act in a PCAP play, and she took to it instantly. "We’d have improv and play freeze, and we learned some of the real basic theater skills that I still really enjoy today," she says. (Mary was released from prison over a decade ago, but asked that we not use her last name because she doesn’t want to suffer from employment discrimination in the future.)
Mary entered prison when she was 21 years old, and like a lot of 21-year olds, perhaps even more so, she had a lot of stuff going on in her head that she needed to work through. Things like grief, sickness, life in general.
But she had no real friends on the inside to talk to.
And so the U of M students and teachers who came in weekly to teach the theater workshop became her friends, her network.
"There was plenty of times when PCAP really kept me going," says Mary. "It’s hard to be snowed-in in a facility in the dead of winter and not have any connection to the outside world, so to have somebody with that level of commitment and you can feel changes in yourself … that’s extremely important to people’s survival and certainly to mine."
Mary was in prison for over two decades, and by the time she was released, her parents had moved to a new city. So she was paroled near them, far from where she had grown up and everything she had once known.
"I had no community to come home to," she explains. "I had my beautiful family who I love dearly, but my parents were elderly, my brothers and sisters were grown and gone, I was literally starting over with what I came home with."
And what she came home with wasn't much. All she had was the red three-piece knit suit she had saved up to buy and a pair of black heels. She says the only thing the prison gave her when she walked out the door was five dollars and three condoms. Her only saving grace, she says, was the network she had formed with PCAP.
"There’s so much you don’t know about being free when you haven’t been free for a very long time," says Mary. "And just the reorientation and the ability to be in a community of friends of people that really like you and respect you and honor your work, that’s tremendous."
Now, Mary left prison in the early 2000s. Back then, Michigan didn’t have any kind of formalized program to help ex-felons re-enter society. Mary and thousands of others ex-felons were on their own when it came to rebuilding their networks and community.
Today, things are better.
In 2005 the state launched its Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative. The goal: to help the thousands of inmates paroled every year learn some kind of marketable skill, find a job, and stay out of prison.
That’s how Calvin Evans wound up as the guy in charge of hiring and firing people at a wood frame-making company in Ann Arbor called Urban Ashes.
He got the job through a parolee re-entry program in Brighton that trains and hires the chronically underemployed. At the time, he was getting paid to sort engine brackets when he says a supervisor came over and asked him if he knew anything about wood ...
"And I was like, I know how to use a tape measure!" jokes Evans. "He actually asked me how many 16ths are in an 8th? And so because of my experience and my criminal activity, I knew [laughs]."
Let’s pause here and talk a little bit about Calvin Evans’ criminal activity.
The reason he wound up in prison for 24 years.
The way Evans tells it, his family lived in poverty, and his mom was in an abusive relationship. So she sent Calvin and his brothers to live with their grandmother in Detroit. His grandmother worked on the line at GM, and Evans says he "used to see her coming home and she had this soot all over her and she used to cough it up." He hated to see her work so hard and yet still live in poverty.
The only people he saw making good money were the drug dealers in the neighborhood. This was back in the 1980s, when crack cocaine was running rampant through the city. "So I began to hang around them in their cars," says Evans, "and they used to take me shopping, so they’re kind of like courting me if you will. They’re petitioning me to be a part of this drug world and I’m fascinated with this whole thing, and so…"
And so he joined up. He liked the lifestyle the drug dealers could offer. He was sick of being poor. He figured dealing drugs was an easy way to make money, plus he told himself and his mom that he was doing it for the family; he’d sell drugs so his little brothers wouldn’t have to.
So one night, he’s in Mount Clemens with a bunch of guys, doing a drug deal, when things went wrong. Horribly wrong. Shots started flying and one guy was shot and killed.
Evans still swears he didn’t do it, but he was convicted of murder and served 24 years.
When it was time for his parole in 2013, he had a plan. He was going to be the best ex-con he could be. He was going to fly right, go to school, get a job. Little did he realize how much he’d use his drug skills to help him land a legal job at Urban Ashes. Not only was he good at math, he was also good at networking. It was one of the main parts of his job when he was selling drugs. So now he's putting those skills to work – not for nefarious purposes this time, but for good ones.
He wants to help ex-cons bridge the gap between life behind bars and life on the outside. And he’s doing it with the help of Urban Ashes founder and president, Paul Hickman.
When designer Paul Hickman first started his framing company, Urban Ashes, he didn’t think his work crew would consist of a bunch of ex-felons. At first he wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s human nature, he says, to question how much you can trust somebody who just spent 20 plus years behind bars.
But he says that all started to fade away once he worked alongside them in the shop, sawing, cutting, and shaping the wood just so.
Now he’s got six employees, three of whom are ex-felons. He's trained them, he's mentored them, and he pays them a good wage. And here’s what he gets in return:
"I’ve never had a more dedicated crew, a more committed crew to making sure things are done correctly and getting things done on time," says Hickman. "They’re proud of what they do. You’ve got a group of people that may be proud of something for the first time in their life, and that’s pretty incredible."
Paul Hickman’s business is a small one, though, and he just can’t hire that many people.
So he’s now turned his attention to other small businesses owners, trying to convince them to hire ex-felons just like he did, and he holds up Urban Ashes as a model.
As for Calvin Evans’ part, he’s focused on the prisoners themselves. He’s on the county’s workforce development board to make sure ex-felons have a voice in terms of job opportunities, and he’s setting up a network of folks to do peer-to-peer counseling with ex-felons upon their release.
He’s gone back to prison – voluntarily – to recruit prisoners on their way out to come work for Urban Ashes, show them there is a way forward, and it comes with a good paycheck. He also mentors the crew he works with right now, just like he used to do when he was selling drugs.
"Every Sunday when I was selling drugs, I took the guys off and we went shopping and to the movies at my expense," explains Evans. "I’m doing the same thing here. I see one of them doing something that is hazardous to the company, I take them out to lunch. It’s on my account. And so what I do is develop a personal relationship with them [so] I can get them to see the vision of the company."
More than two million people are behind bars in the United States, and there’s a national movement to cut that number in half over the next decade.
To have a network of mentors like Calvin Evans and small businesses like Urban Ashes lined up to help with resources and a paycheck could mean the difference between going back to prison and freedom.